Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Foreign Policy Society, Copenhagen, 20 October 1997

Speeches and statements

Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to the Foreign Policy Society, Copenhagen, 20 October 1997

20 October 1997

This is the first day of my one-week visit to the Nordic countries. Yours is a region, and Denmark a country, with a special place in the heart of UNHCR. We are thankful for almost five decades of constant political, moral and financial support. Last year, for example, Denmark was the largest per capita contributor to UNHCR and I hope, of course, that will continue. One of my predecessors was Poul Hartling who, for eight years, steered UNHCR through a period of major changes. One of the world's leading NGOs is the Danish Refugee Council who, in addition to its domestic responsibilities, serve as UNHCR's very competent partner in many of our most important international activities.

I have myself had the privilege of serving as the first High Commissioner, I believe, in the post-cold war period in an institution which was clearly a child of the Cold War, and which for close to four decades was often seen as such, although operating in the strictest impartiality and neutrality. From the early nineties, since the end of the cold war, the refugee problem has increased in scope, magnitude and complexity. Let me share with you some of the characteristics of this period, seen from the vantage point of UNHCR.

Firstly, the number of persons of concern to my Office has increased dramatically. From 2 million in 1970, to 8 million in 1980, to 15 million in 1990 and finally peaking in 1996 at 26 million. This year the number has dropped to some 23 million - as less people among the returnees in Mozambique, war affected civilians in the former Yugoslavia and others elsewhere, require the assistance of my Office.

Secondly, the recent rapidity and scale of displacements are unprecedented. You may recall how at the end of the Gulf war more than 2 million Iraqi Kurds fled into the mountains of Iraq-Turkey and Iran-Iraq in the course of 7 to 10 days, and how some 6 weeks later they all began to return. You may also remember the incredible pictures when, in the summer of 1994, more than 1 millions persons crossed the border from Rwanda during 2-3 days to the then Zaire, in what has been described as an exodus "of biblical proportions". You will also recall how last November some 600 thousand Rwandese, out of the same group, returned from Zaire in the course of 3 to 4 days. There have been similar rapid, large-scale, movements elsewhere over the last few years. Each time, UNHCR and our partners have managed to respond and provide life-saving assistance thanks to our greatly improved emergency capacity response system which, among many other things, draws on stand-by arrangements with the Danish government and the Danish Refugee Council.

Thirdly, whereas in the past, refugee flows were a consequence of a conflict they are increasingly the very goal of the conflict. The war in Bosnia-Herzegovina was aimed at separating ethnic groups and at dehumanising relations so that people could never live together again. The conflicts in the Great Lakes Region of Africa have, in many ways, the same aim.

Fourthly, we have recently seen displacements occurring as a consequence of what I would call group conflicts - with the vanquished group fleeing the victorious group. In such situations, those fleeing are a complex - often explosive - mix of the defeated government, army and militia linked up with innocent refugees - mostly women and children. Their goal is to return to power. The goals of those now in power is to keep them out. In the Great Lakes Region of Africa, refugees were literally held hostage by the former army and militia of Rwanda - who used refugee camps as poles of attraction for aid and staging points for military attacks.

In these circumstances, given the rapidity and scale of displacement, with displacement as the goal of the conflict, often pitting one group against the other, our job both to protect refugees and to find lasting solutions are becoming increasingly difficult. Let me elaborate.

Protection is at the core of UNHCR's mandate. Today, it is also at the heart of our dilemmas. I am concerned that we are facing a growing protection crisis.

I would like to make three points:

One, in the richer part of the world, it seems often, these days, to be politically more attractive to mount obstacles against those attempting to enter a country than to assume political leadership and stand up and defend the human and humanitarian values that ought to be the foundation of any democracy. I am often amazed to hear that the presence of a few thousand non-nationals can be seen as a threat to what ought to be well-managed and well-established societies. I am not under-estimating eventual security risks. Nor do I ignore the fact that many of those seeking asylum in Europe today may not be refugees in need of protection. But that is no reason to treat them inhumanely. The rich world ought to be a positive example if we want other parts of the world to uphold human rights and humanitarian standards. Today, unfortunately, many negative examples are spreading to the poorer parts of the world.

Two, in the third world the presence of large numbers of refugees can make it difficult to find the right balance between humanitarian principles and legitimate security interests of states. Humanitarian law puts an obligation on states to receive those fleeing for their lives and a right for an individual not to be returned to a situation of danger. But states also have an obligation not to have their territories used for subversive activities against another state. International norms are clear on this point. For example, refugee camps must be located at a certain distance from the borders with other countries.

To find the right balance between humanitarian principles and the legitimate security interests of states require that states assume their responsibilities - to protect victims on one hand and not to engage in subversive activities against other states on the other hand. It also requires the international community to be prepared to intervene in cases where states fail to assume this responsibility - because they lack the will or do not have the capacity.

UNHCR cannot substitute for state responsibility - nor of course would states wish that to happen. Demilitarising refugee camps is a political and security action, albeit with humanitarian consequences. Likewise, to separate non-refugees - for example ex-militia or those who might have committed crimes against humanity - requires a political or security operation. To blame UNHCR for non-separation when political or security bodies are unwilling to undertake this task - as in the camps in Eastern Zaire from 1994-1996 - is similar to shooting the messenger.

There is a further problem in attempting to protect the victims of group conflict. With one group in power, those international organizations, and mainly UNHCR, attempting to protect and assist the defeated and fleeing group may be seen as taking sides. Despite observing the strictest impartiality, humanitarian organizations may be perceived as being partial. What is seen as a humanitarian act of protection by some, may be seen as an unfriendly and political act by others.

Today, we are not only protecting the victims of violence, we are often operating in the midst of conflict. In such situations, what is required more than anything else is physical protection, often going beyond the capacity of humanitarian organizations but recently, it seems, also beyond what military forces are prepared to do. I am concerned that too often lately I have had to send my staff into situations of conflict and tension where even the military do not dare to tread. There is a need to identify security arrangements that are proportional to the assessed risks. In this context, I believe Denmark has a long experience and useful expertise having participated in many and varied peacekeeping operations, and having also been involved in the UN Guard Arrangement in Northern Iraq. I am also impressed by its recent excellent initiative for a Stand-by Force. Furthermore, I would like to see a greater recognition by the international community of the risks to which we are exposing unarmed humanitarian staff. I hope that the ongoing talks on an International Criminal Court will include both crimes against humanity and attacks on humanitarian staff under its jurisdiction.

Like protection, solutions are also becoming more difficult. Too often in today's world we are choosing between the lesser of two evils, whether to continue to attempt to protect and assist refugees in the midst of conflicts - in highly politicised or militarised refugee situations - or whether to return refugees to situations of instability or fragility. Just think of returns to Afghanistan - still in a state of civil war - or Rwanda, with several areas out of bounds because of fighting, or Bosnia-Herzegovina where, in many places, the forces of ethnic separation are still in power and using all means to block return. In these and other cases, solutions present the same dilemma as our protection function. When displacement has been the very goal of war, it is evident that the only way to overturn such a goal is to reverse displacement which means the return of the displaced to the place of origin. It is equally obvious that if, as is the case in Bosnia today, those who started and conducted the war are still in power they will do everything in their power to block return. Or to put it simply: return of refugees may reverse the goal of war. But return of refugees may contribute in a non-military way, to reversing the militarily imposed power structures. In such situations, the return of refugees and displaced persons, although a humanitarian action, per se, can only be enforced if there is the necessary political will - nationally and internationally. Bosnia Herzegovina, where I believe UNHCR has attempted everything in its power to implement the Dayton Peace Agreement but where, nevertheless, only 300,000 out of some 2 million displaced have returned, is a painful reminder of this fact. I would like to see much stronger political support and a continued military presence if we are to succeed in bringing refugees and displaced persons back to their places or origin in Bosnia-Herzegovina - and throughout Former Yugoslavia for that matter - and if we are to help build a stable and multi-ethnic society.

I have tried to describe the dilemmas and difficulties that confront us. Let me now attempt to suggest a way forward. During the cold war, humanitarian action was seen as such a way forward, possibly and ironically, because it often coincided with the strategic interests of major powers. Refugees would flee from totalitarian regimes to democracies and would be received with open arms - to show the difference between evil and good. Millions of refugees fleeing Soviet occupied Afghanistan were being generously assisted in the neighbouring countries with the massive help of the international community. Millions of Vietnamese fled the Communist regime in the wake of the Vietnam war - and had no problems in finding resettlement in the West.

In the post cold war period - with the international community still groping to find new mechanisms to deal with the new type of conflicts which are largely internal ethno-political group confrontations - humanitarian action has often become a substitute for political action - and, as such, the political action. Northern Iraq, Bosnia Herzegovina and the Great Lakes Region of Africa are pertinent examples. I am concerned that if we leave humanitarian action for too long, alone and isolated with no parallel political initiatives, we end up exposing and weakening it. Humanitarian action must be part of a comprehensive international crisis management system. I believe the Secretary-General with his initiatives for UN Reform has shown the way forward. One of his first actions was to establish, within the Secretariat, four Executive Committees representing what should be the main focus of the UN, i.e. Peace and Security, Humanitarian Affairs, Economic and Social norms, and Operational Development Activities. Transcending all four Executive Committees - and thereby all UN activities - would be the issue of human rights. An international crisis management mechanism or strategy should cover these five elements; i.e. political, security, economic and social development, human rights and humanitarian.

To achieve this, first we need a much stronger emphasis on political conflict prevention and conflict resolution. I am, in this connection, encouraged by an increasing realisation by states of the links between state security and human security. These days, there is hardly a day when humanitarian problems are not discussed in the Security Council. I see the beginning of a recognition that humanitarian crises are strategic issues which affect regional peace and stability. But there is also an increasing understanding that there can be no state security without human security. I hope the next step will be a translation of this recognition into more concrete action on behalf of victims of violence.

My second point is that such action will often have to be in the form of security support. We cannot continue to rely on humanitarian actors to operate in the midst of highly politicised or militarised conflicts. Every situation has its own characteristics and, after careful analysis, requires a specific response. It should not be a matter of all or nothing - or, in other words, a massive military operation with overwhelming force or no action at all. There should be a ladder of options - from military operations to peacekeeping operations, to civilian police, armed or unarmed, UN Guards, or the kind of civilian arrangements we have been involved in ourselves. What we need is a Rapidly Deployable Arrangement that can intervene in order to create a safe environment for humanitarian action. I hope that Denmark - and the Nordic countries - will continue pushing the debate on the need for effective international arrangements in this field.

I know that I will also find Danish and Nordic understanding for my third point which relates to the links between humanitarian action and economic, social and development activities. For some time, it has been evident that the return of refugees to states emerging from conflict requires an environment not only of safety but also of prospects for early returns to normalcy. Our activities must be part of larger peace-building efforts in the transition from war to peace. There is a need for quick rehabilitation efforts on behalf of return communities, but on a much larger scale there is a need for the physical and social reconstruction of societies. Too often, humanitarian action has taken off at its own speed with little regard for larger development goals. And too often, development activities have started too late with little regard for the importance of consolidating a fragile return to peace. Humanitarian rehabilitation action, recovery and reconstruction activities must be subject to joint planning and take place in a joint operational framework with mutually reinforcing interventions.

Both the return of refugees - and rejected asylum-seekers for that matter - can help to consolidate fragile societies if return is linked to wider development efforts. Return can serve as a catalyst for change. In particular, attention should be paid to the importance of reconciliation when return takes place to societies where forcible displacement of persons from other groups has been the very objective of war. By focusing assistance on communities of return - irrespective of categories of ethnic belonging - and by encouraging individuals to be active participants in the rebuilding of their societies, we are not only building up local capacities, we are actually working rather than talking reconciliation. UNHCR has tried such initiatives in both Bosnia and Rwanda, linking up with other parts of the international community both inside and outside the UN, and we are committed to pursuing this path.

My fourth point in an integrated approach must be the respect for human rights. Indeed, human security in its widest sense requires a full respect for the totality of human rights - be they political, economic or social. It is the violation of human rights that leads to conflicts and displacement. It is the restoration of human rights that is the beginning of the return to a life in safety and dignity. In recognition of this fact, my Office has been strengthening our cooperation with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Too often, over the last five to seven years, humanitarian action has been like a bridge over troubled waters. My hope is that we are moving towards an international crisis management system where humanitarian action will be the bridge that reaches out to the necessary political and security actors on one hand and the indispensable economic and social activities on the other hand. I believe we have learnt a lot from the crises since the end of the Cold War. The challenge now is to apply our lessons to the construction of a strategy and mechanism for addressing the new type of conflict. This afternoon, I have attempted to outline the main elements of such a strategy. I count on the leadership and support of the Nordic countries and peoples in this exercise.